The Cultural Meaning of Beer Commercials

Lance State, Fordham University
[ to cite ]:
Lance State (1991) ,"The Cultural Meaning of Beer Commercials", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 115-119.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 115-119

THE CULTURAL MEANING OF BEER COMMERCIALS

Lance State, Fordham University

With the growing concern over the health and safety problems associated with alcohol consumption, there have been a number of studies on alcohol advertising (Atkin 1987; Finn & Strickland 1982, 1983; Hacker, Collins, & Jacobson 1987; Jacobson, Atkins, & Hacker 1983). In these studies, the tendency is to view the ads as a form of persuasion, and to focus on the strategies used, and the types of audiences targeted. My own research on beer commercials (Postman, Nystrom, Strate & Weingartner 1987; Strate 1989) takes a somewhat different approach, in that ads are seen as a form of cultural communication, and the objective is to uncover their cultural meanings. This type of approach draws on theory and research in popular culture and anthropology, semiotics and structuralism, and critical and cultural studies, and has been used to analyze many types of mass media messages, including print and broadcast advertising. (Barthes 1972; Fiske 1987; Fiske & Hartley 1984; Himmelstein 1984; Langholz Leymore 1975; McArthur 1984; McLuhan 1951; Williamson 1978) What I would like to do here is to explain my approach to analyzing beer commercials, and its implications for social problems such as youthful drinking and driving.

This approach is particularly well-suited for the analysis of modern advertising. Major advertising campaigns generally do not present logical arguments and claims for their products. Instead, they seek to associate their product with evocative images and themes. As Tony Schwartz, one of the first to use this soft-sell strategy, puts it: "The critical task is to design our package of stimuli so that it resonates with information already stored within an individual and thereby induces the desired learning or behavioral effect." (Schwartz 1974, p.24) In other words, ads are designed to evoke meaning in the minds of audience members. Ads do not need to explicitly state their meaning; they merely suggest their meaning, depending on the audience to fill in the missing pieces. The images and themes are drawn from our shared culture, and therefore tend to evoke similar meanings in many different people. To some extent, this is how any type of communication works, as educator E.D. Hirsch (1987) notes: "We know instinctively that to understand what somebody is saying, we must understand more than the surface meanings of words; we have to understand the context as well... To grasp the words on a page we have to know a lot of information that isn't set down on the page." (p.3) Advertising is merely the most extreme form of this process, as ads try to elicit the most meaning from the least amount of information.

Let me provide you with two examples. If I were to use the phrase "seventeen seventy-six," I could assume that you would associate that year with the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War, with individuals such as Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, and with values such as liberty, democracy, and patriotism. I would not need to explain the underlying meaning of "seventeen seventy-six" nor would you need to consciously summon up the associated information. I can make this assumption because we not only share the same language, but the same culture as well. I could not be so-certain if I were presenting this paper at a conference in New Zealand. New Zealanders may speak the same language, but they may not be familiar with our history, and they certainly would not attach the same emotional connotations to the phrase as we would. For my second example, I would like you to consider the image of the cowboy, the "Marlboro Man" for example. This type of.image is effective only because we already know what it means, because we have prior experience with- the image of the cowboy as a historical type and as a fictional character in the Western genre. The advertiser does not have to explain that the image refers to masculinity, rugged individualism and self-sufficiency. We can make those associations without actively thinking about them. Now, the task of the researcher, in analyzing cultural meanings, is to fill in the missing pieces, the cultural context, to make those associations explicit, and to explain their implications.

The term that is used to refer to the cultural meaning of an image, theme, or any other type of sign is myth. (Barthes 1972; Fiske & Hartley 1984) In this sense, a myth is not a falsehood or fairy-tale, but an uncontested and unconscious assumption that is so widely shared within a culture that it is considered natural, instead of recognized as a social convention. Some myths take the form of recurring plotlines. For example, we have our stories about the taming of the frontier, and of individuals rising from rags to riches. Other myths may be simpler in form, but no less potent, such as when we use automobiles as symbols of status and freedom. And certain myths provide ready-made answers to universal human questions, questions about ourselves, our relationships with others, and with our environment. Myths are expressed in many different ways: in the stories we tell, the games we play, the books and newspapers we read, and in the television programs and commercials that we watch. Each individual expression of a myth is related to and depends upon other variations. And each myth itself is related to other myths in a dense web of meaning. For this reason, myths need to be analyzed through qualitative, critical methodologies. It is possible to determine the percentage of beer commercials that contain images of cars. It is possible to measure the physiological and emotional reactions of audience members to those images. But it is not possible to measure or calculate the cultural meaning of those images. What is required is the same type of in-depth study anthropologists use to understand other cultures. Moreover, the need for quantitative methodologies is reduced when you are dealing with a relatively small universe of content, as is the case with the number of different beer commercials broadcast at any given time.

I should point out to you that in analyzing the myths of beer commercials, I share at least one assumption in common with the beer industry: that advertising has the ability to influence attitudes and behavior. There is no other reasonable explanation for the fact that over one billion dollars a year is spent on alcohol ads. (Jacobs 1989) Nor would there be so much interest in consumer research unless that research could be used to influence consumer behavior through mediated messages. Therefore, the real question is not about the existence of advertising's effects, but about the nature of those effects.

It is perfectly understandable that advertisers are primarily interested in sales and market shares. But there is no reason why we must limit our concerns to those of advertisers. Just as every drug has its side-effects, and just as every innovation has its negative and unintended effects (Rogers 1983), advertisements have consequences which advertisers may not have forseen. We all know that commercials, regardless of their intended function, can introduce new phrases into our culture, such as "Where's the beef?" and can create new celebrities, such as "Joe Isuzu." I would also argue that advertising, like any form of mass communication, performs the function of socialization, that is, the transmission of cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes, and influences the way we view our world. (Gerbner dc Gross 1976; Gerbner, Gross, Jackson-Beeck, Jeffries-Fox, & Signorielli 1978; Signorielli 1987) Theory and research on social learning indicate that television programming can teach children specific behaviors, and whether those behaviors will be rewarded or punished. (Bandura 1977) In the same way, television provides instruction on social roles, and the cultural rules pertaining to them. (Meyrowitz 1985)

The effects of television content will of course vary according to individual characteristics, and television is only one of many different agents of socialization; others include the family, the community, and the school. But television commercials are a prolific source of role models, and are rarely ambiguous as to the types of behaviors that are rewarded or punished. And, aside from sleeping, children spend more time watching television that in any other single activity, which is why Neil Postman (1979) argues that television has replaced the school as the primary educational institution in America today. In other words, educational television includes not just Big Bird, but also Spuds MacKenzie. Beer commercials may be aimed for an adult audience, but their actual audience is composed of a great number of young people. And as Peter Drucker (1989, p.249) argues, "There are more hours of pedagogy in one thirty-second commercial than most teachers can pack into a month of teaching. The subject matter of the TV commercial is secondary; what matters is the skill, professionalism, and persuasive power of the presentation." The point is that beer commercials, regardless of their intended audience, have the power to reach and to influence young people.

In sum, advertisers use myths to evoke meaning in the minds of audiences. They generally do not invent those myths, but they do reinforce them and reshape them. The way in which the myths are presented, the elements that are emphasized, and the way in which they are associated with a particular product, have the potential to influence the attitudes and behavior of intended and unintended audiences. With this in mind, I would now like to provide you with some examples of myths commonly found in beer commercials over the last several years, based on the research reported in Postman et al. (1987) and Strate (1989).

I have already mentioned the mythic image of the cowboy, which is related to the myth of the frontier. In this myth, the frontier is seen as pure, free from the corruption of civilization. The untamed wilderness is also a scene of sudden danger, and the survival of the frontiersman depends on his ability to respond to that danger, to overcome the power of nature. And he must do so alone, without the protection that civilization provides. Unaided and unrestrained by civilization, the frontiersman is able to demonstrate, without equivocation, his mastery over nature. That is why the cowboy is seen as the archetypical man's man. This myth is used in the advertising campaign for Busch beer. In one commercial, we see a cowboy on horseback, herding cattle across a river. A small calf is overcome by the current, but the cowboy is able to withstand the force of the river and come to the rescue. The voice-over says: "Sometimes a simple river crossing isn't so simple. And when you've got him back it's your turn. Head for the beer brewed natural as a mountain stream." As this last sentence is said, we see a six-pack pulled out of clear running water, as if by magic. In this ad, the power and danger of nature takes the form of the river, but nature's gentler aspect is also present in the form of the mountain stream. The beer is presented as a form of nature, more or less identical with the stream, both in the voice-over and in the image of a hand pulling the six-pack from the water. Identity relationships between beer and water are presented in ads for a number of other beers, such as Rolling Rock, Heileman's Old Style, and Molson's Golden. Collectively, they present beer as a form of bottled nature. Drinking beer then is a relatively safe way of facing the challenge of nature. For those of us who do not wish to get our feet wet saving a calf, drinking beer is a way to symbolically re-enact the taming of the wilderness.

The symbol of Busch beer, found on its label and in its commercials, is a horse rearing on its hind legs. The stallion can be seen as a phallic symbol, but it also evokes the idea of untamed nature. And in another Busch commercial, a young rodeo rider is quickly thrown form his mount; trying to cheer him up, an older cowboy hands him a beer and says: "Here. This one don't buck so hard." In this case, the identity between nature and beer is made via the horse. Drinking beer is like rodeo-riding, only less strenuous. It is a challenge that the young rider can easily overcome, allowing him to save face. And for the less daring among us, drinking is an acceptable substitute for taming wild horses. The identification of beer with nature can also be presented through the commercial's setting. For example, the ads for Old Milwaukee beer are usually set in wilderness environments that feature water, such as the Florida Everglades and Glacier Bay, Alaska. In each ad, several men are engaged in recreational activities such as high speed airboating, boat racing, and fishing. Each commercial begins with a voice-over that says something like: "The Florida Everglades and Old Milwaukee both mean something great to these guys." And each commercial features a jingle which says: "There's nothing like the flavor of a special place and Old Milwaukee beer." The place is special because it is untouched by civilization, allowing men the freedom to engage in forms of recreation not possible in the city and its suburbs. Of course, the special place must be relatively inaccessible, otherwise it would not be special. Since beer is presented as identical to the place however, drinking beer may act as a substitute for actually visiting the place.

Associating beer with nature and the frontier is only one of a number of ways in which beer commercials use the theme of challenge. Physical challenge is implied by images of laborers and athletes, and made manifest in the depiction of work and leisure activities. The association between beer and physical challenge is problematic in and of itself, as it implies that drinking has no effect on motor coordination. But there is a more subtle problem involved, in that beer is presented as a reward for hard work or play. In the Busch and Old Milwaukee ads, beer is a reward for facing the challenge of the wilderness, not just because drinking is pleasurable, but also because drinking is a symbolic re-enactment of the taming of nature. Beer is an appropriate and meaningful reward for such activities because it is identified with rivers, wild horses, and other aspects of the natural environment. And when strength and skill are challenged in other environments, the reward of beer likewise allows for symbolic re-enactment. This can be seen in the many Budweiser commercials that use the myth of the American dream, that is, stories about economic opportunity and upward mobility.

One of Budweiser's most frequently aired commercials during the 1980s features a young Polish immigrant, and an older foreman and dispatcher. In the first scene, the dispatcher is reading names from a clipboard, giving workers their assignments. Arriving late, which earns him a look of displeasure from the foreman, the nervous young immigrant takes a seat in the back. When he is finally called, the young man walks up to the front of the room, corrects the dispatcher's mispronunciation of his name, and is given his assignment. The scene then shifts to a montage of the day's work; by the-end of the day it is clear that he had earned the respect of his co-workers. The final scene is in a crowded tavern; the young man walks through the door, making his way to the bar, looking around nervously, until someone calls his name, and the foreman hands him a beer. In both the first and final scene, the immigrant begins at the back of the room, highlighting his outsider status, and moves to the front as he is given a chance to prove himself. The commercial's parallelism is not just an aesthetic device, but a mythic one as well. Having mastered the challenge of work, the reward of beer is an invitation to symbolically re-enact his feat. By working hard and well, he gains acceptance in the work world; by drinking the beer, he can also gain acceptance into the social world of the bar.

The theme of challenge is also present in a subtle way in the Bud Lite ads, where someone orders "a light," is given a substitute such as a lamp or torch, and then corrects himself, asking for "a Bud Light." Here the risk is one of social ridicule for those who are unfamiliar with the rules for ordering drinks. Particularly to a novice drinker, bars and bartenders can seem very threatening. And as one of the commercials revealed, the bartenders play these pranks because they are fed up with uninformed customers. The bizarre substitutions are a form of hazing, an initiation into proper barroom behavior. The challenge then is to know the rules and to know what you want. Challenge is also present in the ads that present beer as a medium for male-bonding, such as those for Miller Genuine Draft and Miller Lite. In these ads, men socialize in groups, tell jokes, trade insults, and even engage in shouting matches, e.g. "tastes great" vs. "less filling." Beer is shown as central to this competitive atmosphere, where the risk is losing one's poise and self-control. A similar challenge is present in the ads that depict beer as a means of facilitating interaction between the sexes, which include commercials for Michelob, Colt 45, and strangely enough, the Spuds MacKenzie ads. In these commercials, the challenge to the male is to remain cool and calm in the presence of beautiful women. Insofar as Spuds MacKenzie is treated as a human being in his ads, he fits this profile of the ladies' man as much as Billy Dee Williams does in his Colt 45 commercials. Interestingly, this same image can also be found in the Peanuts comic strip, when Snoopy puts on his "Joe cool" persona. Thus, Spuds never loses his cool while he is fawned ova by women attractive enough to make the rest of us males salivate like Pavlov's dogs.

The reason why the theme of challenge, in its many forms, is all but omnipresent in beer commercials is really quite simple. Beer commercials are aimed at a male audience, and challenge is central to the myth of masculinity. According to this myth (or stereotype or social role), men demonstrate their masculinity by taking risks, facing danger, and overcoming challenges. External physical threats are supplemented and can be replaced by symbolic tests of strength, skill, and self-control. And some of these tests revolve around drinking. The challenge is to hold your liquor, to be able to drink without showing any ill effects, at least relative to your peers. Drinking can serve as a symbolic re-enactment of overcoming a challenge because in itself it is a challenge. The problem is that admitting that you are too drunk to drive would be a sign of weakness, of failure to overcome the challenge and demonstrate masculinity. And while I have no objection to the myth of masculinity in general, I would suggest to you that the association between beer and challenge in any form contributes to the problem of drinking and driving.

Driving itself presents the challenge of maintaining control over the vehicle, and allows for tests of skill and daring. That is why driving and racing are associated with the myth of masculinity. Separately, driving and drinking allow men to demonstrate their masculinity. Both provide a sense of freedom, exhilaration, and power over one's environment. And both are signs of adulthood in a culture that lacks any formal initiation rites for young males. They are linked in our myths and they all too often become linked in practice as well. And that is why the presence of cars and similar forms of transportation in beer commercials is troublesome. Automobiles and even racing cars have appeared in Budweiser's ads and promotional spots and in Michelob's commercials. Budweiser and Old Milwaukee spots have also featured powerboats, rowboats, and sailboats. Busch beer commercials show men riding on horseback, while Budweiser ads often include a horse-drawn carriage. And Coor's uses the slogan: 'The Silver Bullet won't slow you down." Speed is associated with the myth of masculinity because it shortens reaction time and increases risks. The presence of the themes of speed, movement, and challenge in beer commercials is understandable given the cultural meanings of such images, but ultimately promotes drinking and driving.

In Myths, Men, and Beer (Postman et al. 1987) I and my coauthors recommended banning or restricting beer commercials, not as a panacea, but as one of a number of steps that need to be taken in order to alleviate problems such as youthful drinking and driving. I believe beer commercials should be banned for several reasons. First is the pervasiveness of the theme of challenge; the problem is not limited to one ad or one campaign or one brand, but is present across the board in beer advertising. Second, the presence of beer ads on television implies that the product is no different from toothpaste, candy, or soda pop. Eliminating the ads would more clearly indicate that this is an adult product, and one that is potentially dangerous. Given the ban on cigarette commercials and the voluntary abstinence of the liquor companies, a ban on the televised advertising of beer, and perhaps all alcohol products, would be a more consistent policy. And third, the sheer number of beer commercials works against any attempts at social marketing. Such campaigns can only meet with limited results when competing with the "don't worry, be happy" advertising of the beer industry. Unless equal time were provided, banning beer ads would be the only way to give social marketing a chance.

In the absence of an outright ban, restrictions on content would be helpful. At the very least, images of racing, of automobiles and similar forms of transportation, and references to speed and movement should be eliminated from beer ads. And I certainly agree with the recommendations of the Surgeon General's Workshop on Drunk Driving (United States Department of Health and Human Services 1988) that advertisers should not "portray activities that can be dangerous when combined with alcohol use," or "use celebrities with a strong appeal to youth." (p.29) Moreover, as I have tried to show in this paper, the themes of challenge and initiation should not be associated with beer. And at best, beer ads should be restricted to brand identification. Finally, I would like to point out that the same myths found in beer commercials can be used in social-marketing campaigns. Public service spots could actually criticize or parody the dysfunctional elements of specific commercials, in an attempt to inoculate the consumer. Or they could deal with the broader themes of beer ads in a similar manner. Like advertising, public service campaigns are forms of cultural communication, and the goal is cultural change. Reshaping the myths of our culture should be part of any program to effect such change.

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